Uncomfortable

This is not a post about sexism or misogyny. It's not a post about diversity or how to get more women in tech. It's a post about being uncomfortable.

Most people who know me would say I'm a friendly person. I like to meet new people, I like to hear about what cool project they're working on. I like to talk about geeky movies, and music, and books, and all the other things that come up in friendly conversation. And I high-five, a lot. I also watch Archer and adore Louis CK, and I don't mind a good that's-what-she-said joke.

Sometimes, when people figure out I'm friendly, they assume they can talk to me as if I was an old friend of theirs. And sometimes, jokes get told to me that flat out make me uncomfortable. I can hear an off-color, suggestive joke from a close friend and think it's hilarious. I can also hear the same thing from someone I met 5 minutes ago, and feel like I want to run the hell away (in fight or flight, I'm definitely a flight). When I mention that, and I get an "it's just a joke, relax" reply, it makes me feel invalidated, insecure, and even more uncomfortable. So am I defective for feeling like that? Do I not have a sense of humor? Am I overreacting? Am I a prude? What is wrong with me? Everybody else seemed to be fine with it, so it *must* be me, right? What if I don't even really know why it made me feel uncomfortable, just that it did?

Fortunately for me, I am not the only one who struggles with this. I'll get back to this in a minute.

We all know that everything humans do revolves around context, but let me say it again. Context is everything. Sometimes, here in the Land of Open Source, we forget that. We hang out in our jeans and t-shirts, and chat on IRC, and go to conferences to meet up with old friends and have a beer. We recruit our friends to work on our projects with us, and we bitch about stuff on Twitter, or Hacker News, or Reddit. Lost in our own bubble of protection from mainstream society and grownups, *we* make the rules. This is Open Source! We value freedom, and openness, and we defy the status quo! We keep the context of the LoOS nice and tidy and all wrapped up with a little bow, same as it ever was.

And then come new additions to the LoOS. We dub them Newbies and drop them in the middle of it; a sort of trial-by-fire. Sink or swim. Either you fit in as one of Our People, or you don't. This is the way we behave; either you like it or you don't. These are the expectations; either you agree with them and fit in, or you don't. Chances are if you aren't comfortable with anything in this LoOS society, and you want to change it, then you have a long road ahead of you. Because we are free to do as we want, and this is what we've chosen, it will be difficult to convince us otherwise. We're not giving up that freedom to behave the way we want just to placate *you* of all people. And we've always been fine with it, so it must just be you. You should get over it, or you know, there's the door. Some of us have been here a long time, and you just got here.

Hmm, you just got here. Unfortunately for you, history creates context, so any new people coming in essentially have none. Inside jokes, social norms, insider information: these things are all taken at face value by a new person entering any group, without any context whatsoever. This is another piece that I will get back to in a moment.

There's a grocery store near my house that I don't like. It's small, dark, and dirty, and it just makes me uncomfortable. So I never go there. It doesn't make me angry, it doesn't offend me, it doesn't push me down and take my lunch money or call me fat. It's just not a place I want to be; there are other grocery stores around that I like better. It's not worth my energy to try and change the place.

I also joined a gym once. It was full of bodybuilders and supermodels who were all very interested in each other. It made me uncomfortable, so I never went back. I paid the money and I never went back. You may think that's a very silly thing, and they certainly weren't offending me or making me angry. It just was not a place I wanted to be, at all. I've since found a gym that is more open and welcoming and has people of all ages and shapes and sizes, and I feel comfortable there. They send me emails to see how I'm doing. It's nice.

The same is true for our personal relationships. When we say and do things that make the people around us uncomfortable, they are less likely to want to keep hanging around us. They may not be angry or offended, they just make other choices. And they may not even say anything about it because of the internal struggle I mentioned before. Sometimes it's easier to walk away than to spend the energy defending or explaining the way something makes you feel, especially if you know the other party is not particularly receptive to your point of view. I'll get back to this in a minute, too.

Yesterday, I posted this picture on Twitter and asked people to simply tell me if it made them uncomfortable. My goal was just to get honest answers, and not to judge anybody for their reaction (and I hope you can do the same). The results were fascinating.

102 of you replied with a reaction.
3 said no it didn't make you uncomfortable, and gave a lol.
14 said no
42 said no, but thought it was poor taste/didn't want to see it at a conference/made them judge the wearer poorly
37 yes it made them uncomfortable/wow I can't believe that
3 said it made them angry
3 made jokes about the code itself (I love you guys)

The most interesting thing about it was that the results were also quite mixed with regard to gender and location (best I could tell from Twitter). Men and women said it made them angry, men and women said the joke made them laugh. There was a wide array of people expressing widely different opinions. I think the only exception to that is that 4 of you also mentioned a concern with personal safety in being around that person, and you were all women. The majority of you would likely agree that something like that was not appropriate for a professional conference.

Hmm, professional conference. What do those words mean in the LoOS? It seems like an oxymoron in a sense. I mean, we're rebels! We do what we want! We wear jeans to our conferences! We have beer and stuff! And we act just like we always have because we're among Our People.

But look at Your People. Your People have a wide array of widely different opinions about how something makes them feel, and for some, those feelings are pretty strong. Your People do not agree. What's happening here?! And for those who say we should all just act based on "common sense," well, you can see that our sense is not entirely common.

Oh, and remember that thing about context I talked about earlier? Several of you pointed out that the code on the shirt is a very old Linux joke that has been around for years. Those of you with context were not upset at all by the shirt. UPDATE: I did have one more person say that even though they knew of the joke's origin, it still made them feel uncomfortable.

And wait, some of Your People may not mind acting like a professional. They may not mind treating this LoOS as more than just a Google hangout IRL. In fact, for some of you, this is a career and an industry just like any other, and settings where we all come together for this purpose should have different expectations.

So let's get back to what's really important here: me. So I'm feeling uncomfortable because I'm in a weird social situation, and expressing myself makes the weird social situation even weirder. Maybe I'm one of those 36 people who are uncomfortable with the shirt. What do I do? What if there were 10 people with that shirt on? What if there were 300? Do I say anything? Or do I just shut up and sit down?

Elizabeth, it sounds like you're telling me I can't wear what I want or say what I want because "somebody somewhere might be made to feel uncomfortable." No, I'm not saying that at all. Do whatever you want that is authentic to you. That is your right. If you're a company, you absolutely have the right to market yourselves any way that you choose. What I will ask is that you consider the possibility that everything you do and say has a direct effect on those around you. And I will ask you to consider the possibility that if others around you *are* being made uncomfortable in some way, that you ask yourself if that's ok. If the answer is yes, then go for it. If the answer is no, then maybe having a discussion about it is a worthwhile venture. And I will ask that you keep in mind that how you make people feel directly ties into their perceptions about you.

We can talk all day and night about whether something is sexist, or offensive, or inappropriate. What I'm concerned about is that we're judging each other based on where our lines of appropriateness are drawn, and we're not considering the fact that somebody else's lines might not match up with our own. We just get angry at the other side because they can't see our point of view. Worse still, we trivialize and discount serious concerns of others because we don't feel like changing.

In my opinion, there is no right or wrong when it comes to how something makes you feel, deep down in your gut. As I said before, what is hurtful for someone isn't for another. What's a huge deal to some is trivial to others. That doesn't make it any less of a big deal.

If we don't respect Our People, and the new people coming in to our community enough to afford them the freedom to express what they feel without penalty, then this community will be lost. If we don't afford them the common courtesy of compromise and understanding, then this community will be lost. And lastly, if we don't learn to change with a changing tide, and remember that the face of Our People looks very different than it did 10 years ago, then this community will be lost.

For a person to leave our community, or at the very least be much less a part of it, they don't even need to be offended, angry, afraid, or upset. All they need to be is uncomfortable.


17 Responses to Uncomfortable

  1. 260168 Amy Stephen 2013-02-27 12:16:42

    Everything you said. What an opportunity and honor it is to have bumped into you in my virtual life and to be able to read and learn from your thoughtful perspectives. Thank you. (Oooo, noticing you are using Habari. Yes, you are a rebel. That seals the deal. You are now my Goddess.)

  2. 260169 Michael Tutty 2013-02-27 12:18:31

    A few brief thoughts that may apply:

    - This may be more common than we acknowledge. I've seen examples of this in Corporate America as well. Not necessarily even sexual in nature, just people behaving badly. Ranting in meetings. Sending rude or rage-filled reply-all's. Makes it hard to be around those people, and yet often we must. Maybe it's tougher to stand in the OSS community because by and large we CHOOSE to be here.

    - As you've done here, I often start by assuming I'm the one with the problem. Some folks may not find this posting very accessible because they start from a the opposite point of view. That may explain the 3 lols + 14 no's. Stuff rolls off of some people more easily.

    - Isn't there also an element of "You Should Know Better" here? When I get worked up about something, it's often because beneath whatever the complaint is, I would also add, "and YSKB". I think many of the 42 + the 37 + the angry 3 would agree (as do I).

  3. 260178 Matthew Weier O'Phinney 2013-02-27 12:33:38

    Liz, thanks for writing this. It hits home for me right now, for many, many reasons.

  4. 260181 John Bitme 2013-02-27 12:40:36

    What if posts like this make you uncomfortable? Also, what if, after 15 years in open source, you've noticed that those demanding concessions the loudest are those already treated like unicorns and enjoying the privilege of not having to prove themselves in a supposedly meritocratic community?

    I mean open source is clearly not a meritocracy. If you build it, they will not come, and politics determine how projects evolve more then merit. But I know if Linus Torvalds chewed out a female contributor like he currently does men, the white knights would go charging in.

  5. 260185 Andrew Podner 2013-02-27 12:55:42

    Probably one of the most level headed posts on the subject in the last week. Context is absolutely key, and just because a small subset of close friends finds something funny or witty, that is not a confirmation that the same something would gain equal approval in a community-at-large scenario.

    Well written

  6. 260190 BW 2013-02-27 13:49:22

    Good post. Whatever happened to mutual respect? You have a right to wear what you want, I have a right to dislike it. Some people take things too personally.

  7. 260192 Doug 2013-02-27 13:50:48

    Plate o' shrimp - I've been seeing "unicorns" and "white knight" references in the Manosphere corner of the Internet which has recently become known to me. (It has a mix of the interesting, useful, hateful, and toxic.)

    Anyway, good post Elizabeth.

    I'm not a programmer of any sort, so this isn't my fight. But, the issues are, I think, mostly common to group interactions generally. So, I figured I'd offer a couple of thoughts prompted by what you wrote.

    In any group interaction, I guess you have options ranging a spectrum from the entirely bland where interactions are governed by the least common denominator of offense and on the other by unfiltered eruptions of individual id. The optimal point on the spectrum is going to be governed by the composition of the group - a large group of mostly strangers is going to tend toward the bland. A small group of intimate friends is going to tend toward unfiltered individualism. The appropriate group composition, in turn, will depend on what you're trying to accomplish with the group. You could write a doctoral dissertation (probably this has happened) on methods for regulating members in a way that keeps their behavior near the optimal point.

    I was struck by the sentence, "We can talk all day and night about whether something is sexist, or offensive, or inappropriate." Not because it was unusual - it's a perfectly ordinary construction. But because it occurred to me that things cannot be sexist, offensive, or inappropriate in and of themselves. Those concepts don't exist in a vacuum. You have to fill in the "to whom" because those things only exist in context of human interaction. Which gets you back to the group in question, its composition, and its purpose.

    That's a lot of words for me to muse on the subject in the abstract. In my personal life, I'm guided by the wisdom of Dalton in "Road House": Be nice until it's time not to be nice.

    1. Does it make anyone uncomfortable? If no, then do what you want.

    2. If yes, does not doing it harm you? If no, then don't do it.

    3. If yes, then balance the harm to yourself against your opinion of the reasonableness of their discomfort.

  8. 260200 Michael Flanagan 2013-02-27 14:21:24

    Good post, Liz. I would however have to echo what John said above. What made me genuinely uncomfortable recently was the ability of just a few ("unicorns") in the community to shout their discomfort so loud – while leaving such little apparent room for opposing viewpoints.

    Disagreement is met with a friendly "well, you're entitled to disagree :)" at best, stone-wall silence or "you're part of the problem!" at it's worst. Neither is particularly good enough when the original message is so far reaching. What does an entitlement to disagree grant me or anyone else? The policy makers have spoken. Disagree or not, we're left to like it, put up with it, or walk away.

    THIS post, and thankfully there *are* a few others like it, strikes me as an example of Doing It Right. Thoughtful, well written, and inviting of discussion. But there are others who I believe need to appreciate their position as leaders (for want of a better word) in the community and – just as someone might want to consider others a little bit more before putting a 'witty' slogan on a t-shirt – should remember that their points of view are not, and should never be, the only ones.

  9. 260202 Jarvis Badgley 2013-02-27 14:35:29

    I've got a few thoughts about this, so I'm just gonna stream them out for a moment.

    First I want to talk about Content. The linux shirt was a narrative, a story of someone going out to a bar or club, meeting someone attractive, and hooking up. If this story had been just written out on a shirt, it wouldn't be funny; it would just be crude, and people would wonder why the hell someone would put that on a shirt. It's not even a tale that would be interesting, outside perhaps a very close group of friends.

    The medium of the story is a play on words, a set of *nix commands organized to tell the narrative. These words could have been used to to tell many different narratives: someone riding a mule on a nature trail, someone constructing a toy model, the forming of a clay pot. These stories might be interesting to tell on their own, but within this medium they'd be really quite dull. You might get a smile, someone might complement your cleverness, but as a joke it completely falls flat.

    Sex and wit go together like butter and bread, it is simply comedy gold. This joke only works as a sexual joke, and this particular joke also is best told in this form, which brings me to my second talking point: Presentation.

    This is a visual joke, you couldn't tell this joke to someone face to face, it has to be written down. It's too long for a bumper sticker, too specific for a greeting card, and just wouldn't work as a sign or poster. It needs a human connection to have any kick, which makes a T-shirt the perfect medium. A T-shirt also has the benefit of being situational, you can wear it when you expect people around you to get the joke. This leads to my third point: Setting.

    This ties in with Context. The setting in the photo appears to be, from my perspective, a college classroom -- quite possibly a tech class. While this shirt might be really awkward on a 40 year old man walking around an office, it would be quite witty on the back of a twenty-something college kid. Under the right circumstances it could even be a self fulfilling prophecy. In the setting that the shirt is depicted, most people probably wouldn't even notice. (Incidentally, this particular shirt used to be sold by ThinkGeek). Yet, because this photo was presented on Twitter within the abstract context of the PHPness shirt, some people assumed this was taken at a conference. Would this be inappropriate at a conference? Well, it depends on the conference, and who was wearing it.

    That leads me to my final talking point: Discomfort. What is it about this shirt that made people uncomfortable? We couldn't see the person who was wearing it, you couldn't even rightly determine if they were male or female. The narrative itself is not threatening; there is no indication of violence or deception, there is no abuse in its depiction. It does not even define any gender identities, the teller could have been male or female, the other party could have been male or female. So what is it about this story that is making people uncomfortable? Is it just because it's talking about sex? We're surrounded by sex every moment of our lives, why does that make you uncomfortable? Could it be, perhaps, that you perceived an ill intent where none was actually conveyed? Or could it be, just maybe, that you were looking for something to be upset about?

  10. 260207 Doug 2013-02-27 15:03:16

    "What is it about this shirt that made people uncomfortable?"

    I'm hardly a prude, but if I was in a room with mostly strangers and there was a dude telling everyone in the room about hooking up with a blonde; unzipping, fingering, and mounting her before cleaning up and going to sleep, I'd find it a little unsettling.

    Yeah, it's mitigated a bit by being put into a jokey t-shirt/code context; but not entirely. I get that not everyone is offended or even unsettled by such a thing. But I don't find it credible that anyone who understands it as a joke would be truly bewildered to discover that members of the general public find it offensive or unsettling. After all, without at least a whiff of offensiveness, it doesn't work as a joke. What's the point of putting it on the shirt if it's a bland and unremarkable story?

  11. 260215 Alex 2013-02-27 15:15:58

    @Jarvis Badgley: This shirt *was* worn at a conference. http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/LCA2013_shirtgate

    I also don't agree with the fact that making people uncomfortable shouldn't matter because society should've conditioned you to be entirely desensitised to sex. If you're not uncomfortable with it, great. However, other people are, naturally different, and in this case, a majority of people (~80%) reacted negatively to it. They weren't looking for something to be upset about, they were shown something and asked for their opinion on it – which, in most cases, was negative.

  12. 260222 Jordan 2013-02-27 15:30:23

    "Chances are if you aren't comfortable with anything in this LoOS society, and you want to change it, then you have a long road ahead of you."

    True, but then, I think it *should* be true. I don't think that anyone coming into a new society/group/context/etc *should* be able to change things without understanding the context, which, as you point out, they cannot (at least, not right away). Your example of the bodybuilders and supermodels is one that I find particularly difficult to understand. You went to a gym that was populated by a different sort - I've been to them as well, and I'm assuming that like my experience it was a good majority of the total attendance. The thing is, they are there because that's what they want.

    Consider someone looking for a new place to lift weights and build their body up like that - would they feel like they had found their new home?

    My point isn't that things shouldn't change - or be able to be changed, even by "newbies", but rather that there are groups of people organized around certain principles, and by and large they are in those groups because they like the principles.

    Being a member of the developer (and open source) community, I find it sad that there are so few women at conferences (presenting or attending) - mostly because some of the best presentations I've attended were from people who have significantly different perspectives than I do - and gender is one of the qualities that can really affect your POV.

    Can we change things? Sure... but it is going to take a long time, and it should, because changing things too quickly can tear irreparable holes int he fabric of our community.

  13. 260224 Doug 2013-02-27 15:42:55

    I'm reminded of a little league game where my son was playing. A scary looking dude with a braided beard, piercings and tattoos everywhere, was wearing a t-shirt that screamed "I FUCK JESUS" in huge letters. He was there to cheer on his niece.

    One of the other parents caught his attention and politely asked if the guy could maybe turn his shirt inside out or something since it might not be appropriate for some of the kids running around the ball field. The guy said, "sure, no problem" and turned the shirt inside out. Everyone went on with their day.

    And that's how it's done. The people who disliked the shirt didn't waste a bunch of energy seething silently about how this guy should know better. The guy with the shirt didn't pitch a fit or pretend not to understand why people could possibly be offended or gin up implausible rationales about why people shouldn't react negatively to the sentiment.

    If you can't get along with others it's usually because, on some level, you don't want to.

  14. 260261 Jarvis Badgley 2013-02-27 18:44:56

    "I'm hardly a prude, but if I was in a room with mostly strangers and there was a dude telling everyone in the room about hooking up with a blonde;"

    @Doug: I agree, I would feel uncomfortable about that, if that we're to happen, but that is not what happened. This shirt was not made by the person wearing it, s/he is not advertising a conquest that they had. It's a commercial produced product that the person bought in a store because they enjoyed the humor of it and wanted to share it with others. Why is that threatening?

  15. 260291 Andrew Fairley 2013-02-27 20:25:24

    What I found really interesting about this post is that what you are describing is almost identical to a sociological concept known as a 'Community of Practice' (Lave and Wenger 1991). A CoP has three core aspects; mutual engagement, a jointly negotiated enterprise, and a shared repertoire of resources accumulated over time. This tallies very neatly with how you describe the open source community, particularly when you talk about context. Meaning is completely contextual to every individual which is the basis of the whole post structuralist school, but in a CoP there are shared resources that are built up over time to create shared understanding. With a CoP, there is a tacit understanding that any newcomers have to learn to play by its rules in order to become a full part of it.

    However, the problem with a CoP is that it can encourage potentially negative behaviour. People can become resistant to the notion of change, simply because it is a challenge to the established norm, even if there is a reasonable case for change. Because meaning is linked to identity, any challenge can feel like a personal attack, which is why I think you do tend to see a high level of defensiveness in this kind of situation (and please note I'm not just talking about the whole gender in IT debate, it applies in plenty of other situations).

    Lastly, a CoP approach to gender suggests that it is not individuals who are gendered, but the CoP itself - regardless of the biological makeup of its participants. Hence, if we assume the open source CoP that you describe to be a masculine CoP, then that is the dominant episteme and meaning is both digested and created from a masculine perspective. Some women may have no problem with this, some men might - in those cases, the women are happy to engage with the masculine discourses present whilst the men feel disengaged by them. However, if there is persistent and repeated calls for change, which I think there are at the moment (in a IT at any rate), and a good rationale for change (because as you so aptly suggest, the discomfort this creates can cause disengagement for both men and women), then the debate is worthy. However I think people on both sides of the issue are too willing to jump to straw-man arguments (like the white knight argument) and other logical fallacies.

  16. 260323 Doug 2013-02-27 22:50:38

    I don't think it is threatening. But you initially asked why it would make people uncomfortable. And it's for the same reason as the guy who talks loudly enough for a room full of people he doesn't know very well to hear about fingering and mounting a blonde. (That doesn't change, by the way, if the guy's in just telling a story about some third person fingering and mounting a blonde.) It's aberrant.

    Anything socially abnormal can rationally cause discomfort. If the guy was ostentatiously picking his nose in the middle of that room, it'd make me uncomfortable too - even if I wouldn't think much about the same behavior from someone in their car who thought they weren't being observed.

    Blatant disregard for conventions marks someone as willfully defiant or socially retarded - both of which suggest you should keep your guard up.

    It reminds me of my kids asking me about swear words; my 7 year old was honestly incredulous about why a word for going to the bathroom should be bad. I told her that I couldn't give her an explanation that made sense -- "bad" words are entirely arbitrary. But, that we don't say those bad words as a way of showing others that we respect them and care about them. If she swears in front of grandma, even though she knows that grandma doesn't like such language, she might as well just say, "grandma, I don't respect you."

    Like I said earlier, it's not that tough. Be nice.

  17. 260445 Alison 2013-02-28 06:08:23

    I am not a developer, much less a PHP specialist, but I would find that creepy and inappropriate. And I would I assume that the T-shirt wearer was someone who didn't get out much and was probably rather bad at talking to women. I wouldn't talk to them about it, though: just move away. Possibly photograph their back.

    Yeesh.

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